Have you ever had one of those days in teaching when you feel like you are drained of all creativity and intelligence that you might have ever possessed? You are at first patient with yourself, you wait, you listen, you observe, but not a single logical thought about where to begin enters your brain? Do you eventually become impatient with yourself or with your student or client because you can’t even figure out the right questions to ask?
I had one of these days this past week. My first student started to play some scales and arpeggios that were not too bad, but just not quite in tune and she just looked uncomfortable, jerky, each time she changed strings, which coincided with things being out of tune. I looked at her and listened and looked back at her practice notebook to see some of the things we had already discussed that she might pay attention to in the last weeks. I try to teach by asking questions, so I started with a question about one of those things…”Where do you start to move first when you change strings? Does your arm or hand or finger move first?”. She did it more slowly and discovered, as I expected her to, that she was not moving her arm and hand in the same direction. We had explored this before, and so she discovered this pretty easily. So with that knowledge, she started to play again, paying more attention to how she changed strings.
So what do you think happened? Did it sound immediately better? Nope. It got worse. The string crossings were better, but everything else was worse, out of tune, tight, awkward. What the heck? When we explored this idea as a new one a couple of weeks ago, it was so much better immediately. This time it she had become more tense and her intervals were less clear on individual strings. So I then asked her about something else I was starting to see, knowing the answer I was looking for, “What happens when you move from your third finger to your fourth finger? Do you move forward or back in your arm? What about in your hand? What does each finger do?” She noticed, as I intended her to, that although she would move her arm forward, she was curling her finger back, so her muscles were working against each other and it interrupted the flow in the direction she was going. Cool. That’s exactly what I wanted her to find. “So then play a little more slowly with attention to how you move a couple of times. Great. Now let it go and just play.”
Did it improve tremendously from this new insight? No. She kept stopping and forgetting what the intervals are. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she said, “I know these fingerings and I know these arpeggios, but I can’t seem to play anything in tune.”
This student is a fantastic pianist and has been playing the piano much longer than the violin. I asked her if she could imagine the sound of these arpeggios on the piano. See if you can put the pitch back in your head and let the technique go for now; maybe you are just maxing out by attending to too much all at once. She thought maybe that was true and tried to imagine the pitch on the piano first and then play. I told her that the most important thing is to know aurally where you are going; if you don’t know how you want it to sound, your intention cannot be clear; then just notice where you get stuck and figure out what is preventing you from getting there smoothly, easily.
Ok. This was going to get everything back on track right? Not really. It was marginally better in technique, but she was so confused about the intervals that she had to eventually take out her music to figure out what the fingerings were and what she was playing, after having these arpeggios memorized for weeks, because she couldn’t remember how any of it was supposed to go.
I thought, well, this is not my best teaching, despite my efforts to plumb the depths of my intuition and knowledge to try to come up with the right questions to ask her. I felt at a loss, because I was trying to move her in the direction of finding what she needed to improve. I am a big believer in questions and in using them to steer students to the answers they need through their own own listening, sensing, feeling, so that they have a solid experiential foundation to their learning. I want the answers to come from the inside. But somehow it wasn’t working this time, it was like my well of questions had run nearly dry for the moment. There didn’t seem to be any questions that could match the answers she could give or that would yield any really helpful change, and if anything, the questions were almost creating more confusion this time. That was the weird part for me, because asking these kinds of questions was often so productive with students. In any case, I was stuck at the bottom of that dry well.
The only questions left to me were “what’s going on in this student?” and “what does she need?”. These were questions for which I could not find answers inside myself. And then I realized that I had this very intelligent, thoughtful, aware student in front of me to whom I wasn’t asking the most important questions that pertained much more to her than to me, and in fact the ones we could both stand to learn the most from if they were posed and explored even if we didn’t come up with all of the answers.
So not expecting anything earth shattering except a healthy change of direction, I asked her the questions that I didn’t already think I knew the answers to, the ones that might simply be open ended without concrete answers. What do YOU think is happening right now? Where is the struggle? What do you think the problem is?
To my surprise, she immediately became pretty contemplative, and then suddenly just full of insights I had never considered. She said that when she played the piano, the melodic organization was very linear for her, visually and in space. That when you go up and down in pitch, in a line, you move only in two directions, so the coordination and organization is obvious to her, and somewhere in her brain direction is easily connected to pitch, but somehow everything had to become very conscious with the violin because there were so many different trajectories to manage, and that these connected with pitch in much more complex ways; forward didn’t always mean ascending in pitch when changing strings from a low finger to a high finger. She said that although it was all music and line and fingers, hands, and arms, it seemed like her brain had to organize so differently and in complex ways to play music on each instrument. Suddenly so much of the confusion she was experiencing from exploring my original questions in combination made some sense. I would have never imagined this, not having had her personal experience, not having a brain organized by that same experience.
We had a long discussion about this with me finally asking the questions I didn’t know the answers to, and she knew some of them, but not all, but they were the questions most relevant to her experience and her learning. I asked her what she felt like playing next. She went onto her other music with a new ease and actually many interesting comments as we explored some of the ways we could work within the context of thinking about her observations.
Her lesson changed my whole day of teaching, actually. I had been feeling not very full of ideas myself, but as I started to ask each of my students questions I didn’t know the answers to, I realized how full they were, and that they could fill me up with their own insights and that this was maybe the best starting place for their learning and mine.
So, there are questions and there are questions. Imparting knowledge and steering someone to discover knowledge is, indeed, important, but I think it is equally important to continue to ask the questions that we don’t know the answers to as part of our learning and our teaching.